The politics of the modern age, as so clearly visible in the recent London Mayoral elections, might be described either as one of desired inclusion, those from different countries, religions, and economic circumstances, or the opposite of selective exclusion. Politicians are therefore divided between those who address the concerns of the many or those who restrict their audience to the few. Both approaches possess their own danger; public figures speaking broad generalities easily end up saying nothing and become hostage to complex events. Those politicians who focus their message on a core group can easily end up in turn becoming hostage to the single issue fanatic and a shrunken vision of the world. Both outcomes exhibit the perennial problem as to how to present a universal political message to the individual listener or group of listeners in a society where there is little common ground of understanding as to the nature of being human, of what constitutes human freedom and flourishing, and what is morally acceptable or unacceptable. Beneath the busyness of daily urban life in London lie deep divisions and conflicting viewpoints exist about the problems facing this city, about the desperate need for housing, school places and the need to be guard the urban environment from those who see the shared city as a place for financial gain alone.
The Catholic Church’s mandate is to present the message of the Gospel as the means to bring peace between peoples of different persuasions, social situations and outlooks in this city and elsewhere. The Church’s proclamation integrates the universal concerns of common humanity with the individual dignity of each person’s life, and so presents a coherent vision of humanity that forms the foundation for dialogue. The supernatural destiny to which everyone is called in Jesus Christ is the invitation to share a common home within the City of God. Access is made possible only through the will of the Father, and the action of Jesus Christ who send the Holy Spirit onto the individual believer.
It was a very earthly Jerusalem where the Apostles first started their public mission, a city that had seen much bloodshed and was to see more through the successive destructions by the Romans and others over the years. The Christian faith started as an urban religion and will conclude as one in the heavenly Jerusalem. Jerusalem presented the diversity of human culture and this formed the perfect setting for its universal mission. The accounts of the first Pentecost describe the emboldened Apostles speaking the common message in different tongues, to move their listeners from an understanding of what had happened, the why of Jesus’ death and Resurrection into the personal appropriation through Baptism of the journey out of sin and death into the life of the Holy Spirit.
The actions of the Church have remained the same ever since, of preaching the message of Christ and inviting believers to appropriate through the Sacraments the power of Jesus Christ. This life-long appropriation becomes for the believer the living heart of faith that makes the Christian life possible. Without the Sacraments the heart quickly grows cold, and the personal mission given to each Christian of bring peace and joy to a fractured world becomes impossible. Pentecost is a day of great joy because it makes what we desire deep down, the experience of reconciliation and peace, the daily reality of the Christian even in the divided world and city in which we live.
Last week the celebration of the Triduum, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil were interrupted by the vagaries of the weather owing to Storm Katie. The Paschal Candle had to be lit in the porch of St Mary Moorfields owing to the rain. Yet last week Spring has suddenly sprung forth, and the season and the weather give natural witness to the new life proclaimed at Easter.
The life celebrated at Easter, however, is not simply another annual rebirth, but the annual commemoration of the consummation of history that is the consequence of the Resurrection. All points of time from the personal to the cosmic refer to this key moment. No longer is the constant flow of the generations, so an older generation passes into the darkness of night while a younger generation comes to be born is the last word on the human condition. The natural passing of generations is underpinned by the eternal life of God to which the Christian is invited to share through Jesus Christ. At the beginning of the Easter Vigil the priest traces a Cross with the stylus over the Paschal Candle, standing in front of the Easter Fire, saying, ‘all times and all seasons belong to you’. All history and life is being presented to Jesus Christ. Next the priest fixes the five nails saying the words, ‘By your holy and sacred wounds…’ onto the same cruciform shape outlined earlier. The tracing of the Cross is not some initiation rite into a pagan mystery religion but instead the recognition that the gathering of time is not founded on myth but on the historical and very public crucifixion of Jesus on a hill outside the then walls of Jerusalem.
The Paschal Mystery, the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil are together the fulcrum of time. They bring to a conclusion the provisional arrangements of what the Christian calls the Old Testament, the sacrifices in the Temple, and the sole dependence on the Law. The Cross is the Sacrifice for all time, and the life of Jesus was the Law completed. The events of Easter open up a vista onto the supernatural destiny to which every man and woman has been invited. This destiny touches our present reality back here on earth too, and also offers a resolution to the conflicts, suffering and pain of the past. Through the Resurrection all life caught up in the merciful gaze of God. This merciful gaze is experienced in the quiet of the Easter vigil night and the quiet of the Easter morning, a quiet laden with joy, the joy of peace and healing.
The Resurrection gives both the Cross and Last Supper lasting value, and therefore makes real the sacraments of the Church as well as the command to love. Out of the Resurrection a coherent moral life can be built, neither on the shifting sands of popular opinion nor our own rapidly changing emotional states. Instead on the historic love of Jesus given eternal and universal value through His rising from the dead. A Christian life built on the joy of Easter is not one that ignores suffering or the reality of sin, but one that knows these do not have the last word, but can be purified and forgiven, and so integrated back into one’s own life.
Easter gives the Christian the ability to venture to the margins of society as Pope Francis envisages the mission of the Church to involve, because the centre is rock solid established on the supernatural joy of Easter. The more one recognises the joy of Easter the better able one is to venture to the margins, to all those places and peoples who desperately need to hear the consoling words of Jesus Christ.
The Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis is now three months old and has touched the hearts of numerous practising and non-practising Catholics alike. Part of the popularity of the Year of Mercy is that the offer of God’s mercy, made through the Church, is in stark contrast to the meagre supply of mercy available elsewhere. This is especially true in relation to the current problems of the world: the loss of life and destruction of so many homes through the blight of war in Syria; the collapse of civic societies through corruption and violence with the attendant mass migration; the environmental degradation of parts of the globe and the economic malaise afflicting so many nations. All these are on a grand scale, but we can also see problems at a different level in the fragmentation of family and community life in our own country. Put together makes for depressing reading, yet none of the above is the last word. There is a way to resist what might seem inevitable.
The offer of mercy will not solve any of the above problems alone, but the offer gives hope to those who seek this divine mercy and, in so doing, gives them a reason to live. This in turn helps create a society that respects the right to life, individual, familial and communal. The offer of mercy always finds its origin in God alone, but a favourable outcome in terms of a life restored is always the product of a joint enterprise between Christ and believer. The acceptance of divine mercy sets off a chain reaction that contributes to creating, in the words of Cardinal Hume, ‘a civilisation of love’.
This Sunday’s Gospel of the potential condemnation of the woman caught in adultery presents a stark contrast between the mechanistic application of the Law demanded by the elders, and the offer of mercy proffered by Jesus Christ. The elders wanted immediate justice while Jesus was looking for moral conversion. He neither condemned the woman, condone what she had done, nor say that it somehow did not matter. The offer of mercy rises above those conversations to seek the higher goal of life restored and redeemed. In so doing Jesus was not denying the necessity of justice but rather the restoration of what was lost through punishment. He was renewing its exercise so that justice would serve the coming of the kingdom of heaven rather than the exercise of immutable law and its cold logic having primacy. This would be the wrong way round. In a correctly ordered society, the exercise of justice, whether at home or in society at large, is a creative activity the aim of which should ultimately be restoration of the individual back into the community, not condemnation of that person for eternity. It must be the case that where there is life there is always hope of a change of heart.
To be able to show mercy towards others in our own lives is a very powerful witness to the love of God. To offer mercy is to demonstrate some inner strength because mercy does not mean accepting any and every moral choice as equally valid. That form of open-mindedness can quickly descend into a lack of care for others, especially with respect to the most vulnerable, as has all too often been seen in our own society.
The Church has traditionally divided the works of mercy into the corporal and the spiritual, so that the good ideas of the Gospel are made tangible and realisable in the life of the believer. To show this mercy in these particular ways in our own lives requires first and foremost the acceptance of divine mercy. This is probably the most difficult thing to undertake because it cuts so deeply into our pride. Either we think we do not need the mercy, or perhaps we think we are not worthy of the mercy. The season of Lent is the time presented by the Church to break down some of that pride and make the celebration of the Triduum the gateway to the gift of mercy.
This year Ash Wednesday seems to have come upon us no sooner than Christmas has become a memory. The trajectory of the lunar month makes this Easter one of the earliest possible, and with that an early start for Lent. For those aware of the impending season of Lent some might have begun to think about what they might give up, or perhaps take on for the penitential season. Fashions change, and fasting has become once again a more popular option than in recent years. The practice harks back to the earlier days of the Church, as does charity in the form of alms giving. The Church has traditionally offered three ways of Lenten observance: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The exact details and combinations are a matter of personal choice. Here the Church can only propose.
It might be better to look at our Lenten observances, not from the perspective of Ash Wednesday alone, but in the light of Easter. What are the spiritual, liturgical or charitable practices in which we would wish to engage after Easter? If the intention would be to revert to our previous way of life then our Lenten observances would lack bite or long term purpose and become simply a temporary diversion with little or no long term spiritual benefit. The joy of Easter marks the establishment of a new order of reality, founded on Jesus rising from the dead and obliterating that dead weight of meaningless that clings to those who see this life as the totality of existence. This transformation was not achieved through any goodness on men and women’s part, but only through the voluntary sacrifice that Jesus accepted on the Cross. Therefore the focus
on our Lenten observances should not be upon ourselves, about what we can achieve, but on Jesus Christ and how to make the consequence of His sacrifice real in our lives. The culture of the age is very much on personal effort, on success and achievement and, while this might be appropriate in the work place, it does not sit well with Catholic faith. It therefore requires a conscious effort not to think in this way, but to see our own efforts as a response to what Jesus Himself has achieved.
The first response might be giving thanks. First, giving thanks through the Liturgy. Indeed the word ‘Eucharist’ means to give thanks in Greek; thanks through prayer; thanks through giving up something; in other words making a sacrifice; giving thanks through alms giving, recognising that others are not so fortunate. The combination of giving thanks and making sacrifices, whether through fasting, almsgiving and/or prayer, are all relationships that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel.
This year of mercy declared by Pope Francis is an opportunity to turn around the widely misunderstood dynamic of faith, of us searching for God, to the more profound understanding of God searching for us, and our response to this divine search becoming the foundation of our faith. Lent is the time to rediscover this essential dynamic, and our Lenten observances can help in this process. Everything we do begins from gratitude for what Jesus Christ has done, is doing and will do. With this in mind, we can take up our Lenten observances with joy in our hearts.
By now many people’s minds are about returning to work after the Christmas and New Year break or preparing children to back to school. For the Church, though, the Christmas season is still in full swing and does not conclude till next Sunday, 11th January, and indeed the season really concludes with the Presentation in the Temple celebrated on February 2nd. These few weeks include different Feasts that commemorate the public showings of Jesus, firstly at Christmas when the shepherds come to adore the Christ child, secondly this Sunday when the three Kings come to adore the infant King of the Jews, and next week, moving 30 years in one week, the crowds will see Jesus being baptised on the cusp of His public life by John. Each showing points towards a unique aspect of Jesus’ identity. At Christmas the focus is on the birth of the Christ child, the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The same joy that greets any birth of a child within a family fills the Feast of Christmas with joy and hope for the future.
The Solemnity of the Epiphany is a more studied encounter compared to the spontaneity of the shepherds walking across the fields to greet the new born child. The three wise men were encouraged to undertake a journey of great hardship because of the appearance of a new star in the sky. This natural phenomenon could take them so far and but it did inspire in them an incredible effort to seek its true location. Their journey is an image of human reasoning that can carry everyone so far in a journey to seek the truth of themselves and their world, yet by itself is not sufficient to grasp the truth. Hence the three wise men enquired of Herod and his court of religious experts. The Prophets pointed towards the Messiah being born in Bethlehem, a terrible dread of the truth prevented them from making the connection between their own religious knowledge and the enquiry by the three wise men.
This fatigue in front of the dynamism of the truth is a common malaise that affects everyone from time to time. It seems not worth bothering since to accept the truth will require some action, whether something as prosaic as emptying the bins, to something more profound, to sending a thank you note, or to asking forgiveness for something done wrong, to the most profound, to accept the invitation to encounter the living God. The three wise men possess the desire that overcomes this terrible sloth, and after their encounter with Herod and the religious establishment of Jerusalem complete their journey by arriving at the doorway of the stable in Jerusalem. The three wise men possess something that cannot be replaced by religious knowledge, the desire for a personal encounter with the living God. Their journey was complete in physical distance, but not complete in their hearts till they bowed down to adore the infant king. In so doing they both recognise the full identity of Jesus and their own nothingness in front of His greatness.
The carol, ‘O come all ye faithful’ expresses this reality beautifully in the words of the chorus, ‘O come let us adore Him’. Simple adoration is an essential part of our faith, because in adoring one recognise that God loves first, and has in a remarkable way, for the Christian, allowed this adoration not to be directed to some immense pagan deity, but to an infant child, who possesses the infinite promise of divine and human life. This constant disposition to adoration is made visible and public in the Liturgy when one says the ‘Gloria’ and Sanctus at Mass, and it is also made personally in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Since adoration brings with an inherent humility, it is the perfect spring from which to undertake the command to love to ourselves and our neighbour.
This coming Tuesday begins the well-publicised, Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, announced by Pope Francis on the 11th April this year. To listen to some commentators one might be forgiven for thinking that the Church had never thought of mercy before and had been nothing but a judgemental organisation antagonistic to all and everything. The truth is somewhat different. The Church has always preached the reality of God’s mercy. However since the 1900s the advance of secular ways of thinking about the world, science and human nature, has encouraged the Church to shrink religious life into a matrix of sacraments and morals, and with that to see the Church as place for purists or worse still hypocrites. The Church does indeed teach on the sacraments, every Parish arranges for its members to be prepared for the reception of the sacraments, and the Church does teach on moral issues, from the personal to the global. Yet in itself all this activity does not make up the Catholic faith, nor can it make up a Parish. They lack a centre point, and that is the personal and collective meeting with Jesus Christ.
The language of encounter or meeting with Jesus Christ can to the ears of the average Catholic sound very Evangelical. What, one may ask, is wrong with the Sacraments and the prayers of the Church? The answer is obviously nothing, but without the encounter with Jesus, who has touched the heart, the relationship between believer and Church takes on the form of an ‘arranged marriage’ with the hope that the couple, believer and Church would get along through life. This arrangement will often be unable to withstand the forces of secularism that pervade contemporary society. The relationship between Jesus/Church and believer has to be much nearer to falling in love, and then taking on the commitments that such a relationship, if leading to marriage, would entail. The sacraments and the moral life come second to the encounter with Jesus.
What makes up the content of this encounter is the substance of this forthcoming year of mercy. The encounter with Jesus begins very simply with recognising that deep in our hearts that He looks with us with mercy and he calls us to Him. This is the English transliteration of the motto chosen by Pope Francis, miserando atque eligendo’ and expresses the thrust of his Petrine ministry. The experience of mercy and being chosen can be triggered by so many different incidentals in our life; a sudden dawning that the gulf between my ideals and desires, that my actions and circumstances has been bridged by a higher power; the experience of falling in love, of sharing deep friendship, of success or paradoxically failure too, of intimations of mortality. Whatever might have triggered this experience the abiding sense is that God is already there beforehand and is waiting to meet us. The experience of having mercy shown and of being chosen, nor through any merit, is the experience of the sheer gratuitous love of God. This leads inevitably to the primary proclamation of the Christian faith; ‘Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’. Evangelii Gaudium 164.
The mission of the Church therefore is primarily to those who recognise that their lives are something of a mess, not that this should be the destination of life. The understanding expresses the reality of so many people lives, whether the origin of this mess is the consequence of personal sin or the structures of injustice, social economic or political. There is nothing new in this Church teaching, rather it is the re-emergence of ancient themes that places the heart before the structure. Those who celebrate Mass in their Parish and who assist in its life are familiar with the structures of the Church as seen in the Parish that it is easy to forget the heart. Pope Francis points to the dilemmas of the heart, and the personal encounter with Christ to give back to the parishes that we belong a new sense of purpose and mission in a world forgetful of God.
For over 25 years two penguin classic paperbacks have been standing in my bookshelves unopened, but this summer I finally took them down and read the Iliad and the Odyssey. They still bore the price tags of a now long defunct bookshop. The Iliad describe the final phase of the Trojan War that had gone on for nearly ten years. It concludes with the burial rites of the great Trojan warrior Hector after his death at the hands of Achilles, the Greek warrior. The sequel, the Odyssey describe the adventure of Odysseus in his long drawn our return to Ithaca after Troy had been conquered. Far from glorifying war it describes the terrible waste of life, and the brutal finality of death on the battlefield. Despite this interminable slaughter Homer describes a culture in which everything is well made and orientated towards a particular use, the high roofed houses of Ithaca, the hollow ships, the well-built bed, the soft tunic. The lives, ambitions, and actions of men and women are never their own affair alone, but everything is undertaken through the promptings of the pagan deities who themselves are in constant argument with each other, promoting their own favourites. In vivid contrast to his description of life, Homer was unable to give any colour to the afterlife. During his long journey home Odysseus visits the underworld, and encounters the great figures of the past, including Achilles and even his own mother, but they are but shadows. The Greeks recognised the immortality of the soul which flies away at death, but without a body the life described by Homer would be impossible to continue.
This ancient understanding of the afterlife made me recognise, in contrast, the consoling Christian understanding of life after death. The bodily resurrection of Jesus implies that the afterlife is not some disembodied existence lived out in a place of shadows, but includes the very thing that makes us human, the physical body. Odysseus cannot grasp his mother; three times he says that ‘she slipped through my hands and left me pierced with a greater pain’. The bodily resurrection of Jesus makes sense of Christmas, which the Church will soon celebrate once again, when the Virgin Mary gives birth to Jesus Christ, the Word became flesh. The body is what makes each of us recognisable individuals, and so in contrast to Odysseus, St Thomas More can reassure his daughters that ‘we will meet merrily again in heaven’. The hope presented by the Christian understanding of life after death, that each person is called to share their supernatural destiny in the company of the Communion of Saints, is not presented as a fait accompli, but a place only accessible through the mercy of God.
The Church recognises in the doctrine on purgatory, where those who have died, and are destined to enter the kingdom of heaven, are made ready in some mysterious way through the action of others alone, to see God face to face in His kingdom. The saints through the mercy of God have already reached their destination, everyone else needs preparation, and hence the Church has always prayed to Christ for those who have died that their souls will be reunited with their resurrected bodies and share in the destiny to which Jesus Christ has called every person. Every Mass includes prayers in remembrance of the dead, and in this month of November the Church in particularly conscious of this task, and today on Remembrance Sunday all those who have died in war over the last century.
Most of us, at some point, must have been asked as children as to what we wanted to be when we had grown up. The answers were either expressions of bafflement or patently unrealistic. An answer to a question of a career path only emerges later, possibly in 6th Form, College or University. Our parents would wish us to be settled in gainful employment and happy with our lives, and perhaps unspoken, to have grandchildren too. Most parents rightly focus on terrestrial ambitions for their children and are unlikely to see their supernatural destiny as a matter of immediate importance. The constant march of exams and tests for pupils and students precludes too much deep thought about the future, long term or eternal.
Over the last week a new generation of undergraduates have been deposited by their parents at University and are entering that unique form of life that lacks both parental control and adult responsibility. The initial experience of this heady freedom will soon wear off as the demands of academic study become more intense. The years of exams and tests of College will later morph into compliance and procedures in the workplace, but despite this gloomy prospect the experience of University is a privileged period to open the mind and heart with regard to intellectual enquiry, life and even faith. It is a time for questions, for ambition and dreams for the future. This openness may on occasion lead to the greatest answers as to the question of life as found in the Catholic faith.
The young man of this Sunday’s Gospel is the model student, whose enquiring mind could grasp that something was lacking in his life. His immortal longings have been stimulated and they were not being satisfied with a merely ruled based morality. Like many young people he was supremely confident of his ability to fulfil the 10 commandments, even to honouring his mother and father. His enquiry touches something fundamental in morality. He is attracted to the person of Jesus because He was the man with the most compelling answers that touched on something he had already intuitively grasped, that right conduct and eternal destiny were intimately linked. To the young man eternal life is something personal, an attachment not to just an idea but to a person. So Jesus takes him along a path of reasoning, the 10 Commandments are the consequences of an attachment to God of the Old Testament, the Beatitudes, building on the Commandments, are the consequences of an attachment to Him, Jesus Christ. The young man can grasp the issue but sadly is unable to make the leap, to go sell everything and follow Jesus.
It was not just the young man who would fail, so would Peter, the Apostles and everyone else. They all relied on their own resources. We and them need the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the power of grace, given firstly though the Sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation, and then repeatedly through the Eucharist and Reconciliation. The young man of the Gospel despite his failure to sell everything grasped that eternal life throws a positive light onto the meaning of life on earth now, whether at University, at work, in our families, with our friends on in our country. His example shows that no one starts the project of life by being perfect but by recognising the need for the love God and the companionship of Jesus Christ.
There can be nobody who was not moved by the image of a Turkish soldier reverently carrying the body of drowned three year old Kurdish Syrian. The picture brought home the human cost with regard to the recent waves of immigration from the countries of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa where warfare and dictatorship have wrecked civic society. The picture also spoke of the callous disregard to human life exhibited by the human traffickers who overcrowd unsuitable boats and dinghies knowing all too well the risks. The picture spoke too of the thousand others who have died unrecorded, some in the most terrible circumstances.
The obvious cost and danger involved in trying to get into Europe reflects terribly on the conditions of the countries which they have left, and the also the natural desire to seek a better life, a life based on law and economic well-being, whatever the cost.
The experience of forced migration touches something very deep in the human condition, that of experience of dwelling. One of the earliest western works of literature, the Odyssey, is about Odysseus’ ten year return after the Fall of Troy to his own country, lovingly described by Homer. There was his wife, family and home, there he belonged. There is something special about the land or place where one grew up, even if for many of us, it was a few streets that formed a neighbourhood of London. The right to dwell has been taken from so many, whether it is the lack of religious freedom, the lack of economic opportunity or the lack of lack of the rule of law. These are the background reasons for these recent waves of migrants and the terrible cost in the loss of life only shows how desperate so many have become.
The Catholic Church though has something to offer in this tragedy. The Church accepts both the dignity of the individual and the right to live in a just society. The Church recognises the divine imperative to welcome the stranger as ultimately another Christ; ‘as far as you welcomed one of these little ones you welcomed me’. This is a spontaneous human response of solidarity to those in need, obviously not restricted to people of faith, but for whom it becomes a moral imperative. The Christian also recognises the need for civic society and the requirements for peace as necessary for human flourishing. It is these conditions that are lacking in many parts of the Middle East, where religious violence has consumed so many, and the Horn of Africa where countries that should thrive are labouring under the yoke of dictatorship and local warlords. It is these points that are being made time and again by the Bishops of Syria and Iraq as they tend the diminishing congregations, praying that Christianity will not be obliterated in the lands of its earliest missions.
Both approaches complement each other, the first at our individual and parish level, and the second at wider Church level, where every encouragement should be given to those trying to bring peace where there is conflict. The Parish is collecting suitable clothing and blankets etc for the migrants in Calais and beyond. Aid to the Church in need sustains those communities still active in the Middle East; Cafod in fostering the livelihoods of those in most need throughout the Horn of Africa and elsewhere.